After lengthy negotiations, Canada handed over to Britain in April every historical artifact that Parks Canada divers had retrieved from the wreck of HMS Erebus, the long-lost ship of 19th-century Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.
That concession — all 65 objects, some of them mere scraps of metal and cloth — was broader than the terms Canada agreed to when it signed a 1997 memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United Kingdom about future ownership of the Franklin wrecks and artifacts.
Now, CBC News has learned that Parks Canada was hoping to hang on to the Franklin artifacts before delicate talks with the Brits were launched in May 2016.
“The Agency’s preferred approach is to negotiate the full transfer [to Canada] of the wrecks and artifacts (found and yet to be found), except for any gold, and to explore long-term loan options for the U.K. to display important artifacts in museums in the U.K.,” says an internal document dated August 2017, under the heading ‘Parks Canada Position.’
Britain apparently rejected that ‘long-term loan’ option during the talks, saying on Oct. 23 last year it would instead keep a “small sample” of artifacts, without defining “small.”
The 1997 MOU, although not legally binding, acknowledged that Britain owned the Franklin wrecks — HMS Erebus (located in 2014) and HMS Terror (located in 2016) — and their contents because they were part of a British Royal Navy expedition. International maritime law says military shipwrecks remain the property of the originating country.
But the document also committed Britain to relinquishing ownership of everything to Canada, except those recovered artifacts considered to be of “outstanding significance” to the Royal Navy. And any gold found would be shared by the two countries.
“Britain will assume responsibility for all reasonable costs associated with the recovery, conservation and transportation of such artifacts,” the 1997 agreement added.
Lack of clarity
Internal Parks Canada documents show Canadian negotiators were frustrated by the lack of clarity on the British side.
“Defining what is of ‘outstanding significance to the Royal Navy’ and what constitutes a ‘small sample’ may prove to be challenging as the U.K. has yet to give any indication of what that may include,” says a briefing note to Parks Canada’s CEO Daniel Watson from late last year.
Canada’s frustration was compounded when British negotiators fell silent for eight months, from October 2016 to May 2017. They resumed talks only in June 2017, after the intervention of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna with the British high commissioner to Canada.
In the meantime, the agency added up the costs to Canadian taxpayers of conserving the 65 artifacts retrieved so far from the HMS Erebus wreck on the Arctic seabed, in order to present the British with a bill for any objects the U.K. chose to retain, as spelled out in the MOU.
A detailed costing document shows Parks Canada spent at least $364,679 on conservation, including lab supplies, salaries, field work and research. That sum didn’t account for some military and civilian travel costs in the Arctic.
CBC News obtained the document, and other material chronicling the protracted negotiations, under the Access to Information Act.
… there are potentially thousands of artifacts remaining on the wrecks …– Parks Canada spokesperson on discoveries yet to be made from the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror
The ownership issue has been fraught because of the 1999 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which gave Inuit ownership of all archaeological sites and artifacts inside Nunavut. Parks Canada launched the talks with Britain in May 2016 without Inuit participation, and with the Nunavut ownership issue unresolved.
In September 2016, under political pressure, the agency announced it had agreed to a joint-ownership arrangement with the Inuit, who were to be consulted during subsequent negotiations with Britain. The government of Nunavut is also claiming ownership, but there has been no deal yet with Ottawa.
Canada and Britain finally signed a new MOU, as well as a legal transfer document, on April 26 of this year, agreeing that the U.K. would retain all 65 Erebus artifacts without compensating Parks Canada for conservation costs.
Asked why Canada conceded all of the objects retrieved so far at no cost to Britain, a Parks Canada spokesperson said negotiators took into account the trade-off.
“Parks Canada will not be seeking compensation for the cost of the conservation of the Franklin artifacts in recognition of the exceptional and historic nature of the gift of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, along with all yet to be discovered artifacts, to the people of Canada,” Audrey Champagne said in an email.
“Parks Canada believes there are potentially thousands of artifacts remaining on the wrecks that will help unveil more of the Franklin story.”
She also confirmed there has been no joint-ownership deal with the government of Nunavut, though Ottawa “is open to future discussions.”
Meanwhile, the agency is planning more underwater archeology at both wreck sites from July to September, using its 228-ton ship RV David Thompson and the dive barge Qiniqtiryuaq.
Divers will excavate parts of HMS Erebus, retrieving artifacts from the stern cabin area, around the galley and other areas. Work on HMS Terror will be more preliminary — mostly surveying and photography, with the possibility of recovering more artifacts.
The Royal Navy mounted the 1845 expedition to find a northwest passage under Franklin. All crew members died after the two ships were beset by ice, though their exact fate has remained a mystery.
HMS Terror was discovered in Terror Bay, off King Edward Island in 2016. HMS Erebus was located in 2014 farther south.
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